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This version has not been proofread yet and may contain errors.
“Sir, you can’t go in there with her.”
A large burly male nurse stepped in front of Israel, preventing him from following Alyx’s gurney into the operating room at the Mother of Mercy Hospital. Over the man’s shoulder, Israel lost sight of her behind the swinging doors and panic clutched at his heart with cold fingers. In his mind’s eye he saw another set of doors closing on another body. Adere. The memory of another cursed night flashed into his mind, causing him to flinch.
…her open eyes dull and lifeless…
He shook this image from his mind. This was post-traumatic stress. He was reacting like this because of what happened… He was sure that’s what his government-issued therapist would say. If he ever went back to her.
PTSD or not, he was going to make sure Alyx was okay. He was…responsible for her.
Israel grabbed the male nurse by the arm before he moved away. “Please, is she going to be okay?”
Despite his size, the nurse had a kind round face with soft cheeks. “You’ll have to wait ’til she’s been assessed.”
“Then I can see her?”
The nurse eyed him cautiously. “Are you family?”
He considered lying for a second and saying that he was her brother, but no one would believe it. He was dark and tanned as opposed to her porcelain skin, and dark deep-set eyes as opposed to her open round emerald ones. “No.”
“Then I’m afraid we can’t let you in.”
“You don’t understand… I’m going to marry her,” he blurted out.
“You’re her fiancé?”
The lie was out there. He might as well run with it. It wasn’t like there was anyone here to refute his claim. He inhaled deeply and lifted his chin with confidence. “Yes.”
“Wait here and someone’ll get you when she’s ready to have visitors.”
After the ambulance had arrived at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and picked Alyx up, that should have been the end of it for Israel. He should have considered his civic duty done and gone to find the closest bar. No one would have expected anything more from him; he barely knew her. But he found he just couldn’t walk away without knowing she was okay. He just couldn’t.
He had flagged down a taxi in the rain by running out in front of it. He leaped into the passenger seat and ordered the cabbie to drive. They’d followed the ambulance through the labyrinth of skinny Saint Joseph streets to this hospital where he was now, sitting in one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs in a waiting room on the second level, listening to the clack of footsteps along the laminated flooring, the distant beeping of machines and the occasional adrenaline-fueled chaos of doctors and nurses around a gurney barreling its way through the hallway.
Finally the same burly male nurse came out. “Israel? You can come and see her now.” He led Israel into a small white room smelling of antiseptic, stepping aside to let him through. There in the center of the tiny white room was Alyx, lying like a ghost, almost disappearing into the sheets of the hospital bed, her hair pooling around her looking like the blackest of spilled inks. As he got closer he could see the tube coming out from her arm and into an IV drip. A machine on the far side of her was beeping, a thin green line showing that her heart was still beating, the only sign that she was even alive. Israel’s gut clenched fiercely. He barely knew this woman, but something in him felt tied to that beeping line.
“Is she okay?” he asked the nurse.
“Maybe I should let the doctor talk to you. I’ll go get her.”
The doctor? Israel’s gut churned. That didn’t sound good. He gazed over Alyx’s prone body, her closed eyelashes were so long they almost brushed her cheeks. Her cheeks had gone pale, not flushed pink like they were when they stood facing each other outside the Cathedral. He brushed the pale, fragile skin of her forehead with his fingers. She was so soft. “Alyx, if you can hear me…” What would he say to her? He didn’t know her. She didn’t know him.
Someone cleared her throat behind him. He spun. A woman in a white coat stood there, he guessed in her mid-fifties, gray shooting through her dirty blonde hair, tied back into a ponytail at the nape of her neck, a weary look pulling down the jowls of her chin and her eyes a flat dull blue. “Israel, is it?” Her voice was crisp and efficient. “I’m Dr. Novak. You’re her fiancé, are you?”
The doctor glanced past him to Alyx. Following her gaze he realized the doctor was staring at her left hand. Her ringless left hand.
“It was too big,” Israel said. “The ring I got her. We’re having it resized… Will she be okay?”
Dr. Novak walked to the end of Alyx’s bed, where she picked up a clipboard. “She came in with a contusion, a major concussion. Her vitals are sound, but…”
The doctor pursed her lips. “I don’t know why she sank into a coma. A deep coma. She’s not responding to anything. Her pupils aren’t dilating, she’s not responding to verbal cues. No motor responses either. We’ve hooked her up to an IV drip to keep her fluids up and we’re monitoring her heart rate. That’s all we can do for her now.”
“When will she wake up?”
“Israel,” she said slowly. “There’s no medical reason for her to even be in a coma.”
Israel blinked once, twice at the doctor, trying to decipher the meaning behind her words. He didn’t find any answers there. He glanced down at Alyx and his heart fluttered at the sight of her so frail and helpless. It looked so wrong. “What does that mean? Why won’t she wake up?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.” The doctor replaced the clipboard at the end of Alyx’s bed and turned to leave. At the door she paused and shot one last meaningful look at Israel. “Are you a spiritual man?”
“No.” He had stopped believing in any of that rubbish a long time ago. Being a cop, seeing the things he had, did that to a man. “Why?”
“Sometime medical science doesn’t have the answers. Sometimes the answers are found somewhere else.”
“Like where?” He was starting to get frustrated because he just couldn’t understand whatever this doctor was implying. “What answers?”
“Maybe there’s a reason she doesn’t want to wake up.”
* * *
Maybe there’s a reason she doesn’t want to wake up.
Israel jammed the key to his flat, the doctor’s voice still ringing in his head. After the doctor had left, he remained at Alyx’s bedside. He couldn’t bring himself to leave. He just sat there for hours in a chair by her bed, whispering at her to please wake up and reminding her of all the reasons why this world was a good place to be in: “chocolate ice-cream and puppies and the first snow of winter and the way the autumn turns the leaves green and gold.” Just like your beautiful eyes. Open those eyes, Alyx. Let me see them. Until one of the nurses kicked him out, letting him know that visiting hours were over.
Israel let himself into his dark apartment and an old Chinese proverb rang in his head. If you save a life, you’re responsible for it. Maybe this responsibility was why he seemed so tied to Alyx, a woman he didn’t even know.
Maybe she’s your penance.
He shut the door behind him, turned on the light. And froze. There were two men he’d never seen before in his living room. One looked like a gypsy, with golden skin and dirty blonde hair that grew over his collar and a strong nose. The other was chocolate-skinned with raven hair.
“We’re not here to hurt you,” the darker one said.
Israel was so stunned that for a second he didn’t react. “Who the hell are you?”
“We’re…old friends of Alyx’s.”
Israel’s body prickled, tensing. Friends of Alyx’s? Why were they here? Had they followed him from the hospital?
“I’m Jordan,” the gypsy-looking one said, “and this is Balthazar.”
“Or you can call me B,” the dark-haired man said with a grin.
How the hell had they gotten in? The door had been locked. He hadn’t noticed any tool marks around the lock.
A cool breeze floated in from somewhere. His bedroom window had been opened, the curtains floating out like ghosts. They must have scaled up all four stories. His skin prickled. They must want something very badly to risk scaling up this high.
“What do you want?” he said, his gaze darting over the intruders, assessing them. The one named Jordan was taller and broader, but the other one looked faster and leaner. Israel wouldn’t win against the two of them in an unarmed fight. Neither of them had guns in their hands nor could he see any bulges of weapons on their person. Not visible ones anyway.
“Don’t be afraid. We’re not here to hurt you,” the one named Balthazar said.
“We just want to talk,” said Jordan.
“Well, Jordan…come on. We don’t just want to talk, do we?”
“We’re going to ask him to do something for us?”
“Are you serious? It was just a figure of speech.”
“I just don’t want to misrepresent us.”
Israel eyed the two men as they bickered between themselves. They were distracted enough. This would be his best chance.
He slammed back up against the door, his hands going for the pistol at his hip. Usually it would be his service weapon, a CZ 75, but seeing as that was taken off him when he quit, he now kept an unregistered Glock 17 that he’d paid for in cash.
“Hands up, both of you,” he yelled, pointing the gun between them.
The two stopped talking and turned to face him.
“Is he pointing a gun at us?” said Balthazar, sounding more curious than scared.
Jordan snorted. “Well, that won’t work.”
Why weren’t these guys scared?
“Get your hands up now.” Israel clicked back the hammer. “I’ll shoot.”
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Jordan, as if Israel was being a nuisance.
“Maybe you should give him something to calm him down,” Balthazar said.
“Already on it.” Before Israel could move, Jordan flicked his palm at him. A warm wave of sleepiness smashed into him and almost knocked him off his feet. It drowned him, crashing down over him like half an ocean. He dropped to his knees, swaying. The gun slid out of his fingers and clattered to the floor. The world fluttered in and out of sight as his eyelids refused to stay open. What the hell was happening to him?
He was about to fall the rest of the way when he felt hands on him, preventing him from hitting the threadbare carpet. His head flopped to one side, too heavy to hold up.
“Dammit, Jordan,” he heard from close by. “I said ‘calm him down’ not ‘knock him out’.”
“Relax, B. I didn’t knock him out. Look, he’s awake. Sort of.”
There was a sigh. “We can’t exactly talk to him while he’s like this, can we?”
“Why not? I always liked him more when he was asleep.”
“Still holding a grudge for getting the girl, are we?”
There was an indignant snort. “Of course not.”
None of what these two intruders said made sense. Israel just knew that whatever electrical node or weapon they had used on him was fading a little. He had to fight against it or he’d be dead. Or worse.
Israel fought against the sleepiness, trying to lift it off him as if it were a pile of coats. It was working. Kind of. He was able to struggle meekly as they dragged him to the couch and pulled him onto it. If they were going to hurt him, why the hell would they lie him on the couch?
“See? He’s already fighting the DreamWalker,” Jordan said, sounding amused. “There may be some of his old self left in him.”
What the hell was DreamWalker? Was that a kind of Taser gun?
Balthazar bent down at Israel’s side, his whole face almost taking up Israel’s entire range of vision. For a second he thought he saw a shimmer of blue across Balthazar’s cheekbones. He blinked and it was gone. His eyes must be playing tricks on him.
“Comfy?” Balthazar asked before stepping back.
If they were here going to hurt him, why would they care if he was comfortable? The sleep had slid off enough that his eyes were open now but his body still felt like lead.
Israel tried his best to glare at Jordan as he settled down in one of the armchairs, his eyes steady on Israel’s face. There was something about this guy that irked him. A cocky arrogance about him that made Israel want to punch him right in his pretty-boy face.
Balthazar perched on the far arm of the couch, lacing his fingers together on his knee. “Now,” he said in a tone that made Israel feel like he was seven and about to be lectured. “Jordan’s going to…er, let you up, but only if you promise not to freak out and try to point any more guns at us.” He shuddered. “Lord, do I hate guns. If I wanted to be filled full of little balls, I’d−”
“Wave if you agree, Israel,” said Jordan, cutting Balthazar off.
He knows my name. How does he know my name? Any thoughts that this was just a random break-in were gone. They wanted him for some reason.
Israel channeled all his strength into his right hand and slowly lifted up his middle finger.
“You were always a charming one,” Jordan muttered as he flicked his palm out towards Israel again.
This time the feeling that thundered through Israel was cool and refreshing. He felt the sleep being lifted off him and the lightness coming back to his bones. He kicked himself into the farthest corner of the couch, then swung his legs out so they were flat on the floor and he was sitting. His gun was still by his front door, too far away to be any damn use. He’d have to play along until he figured out a better plan. “You’ve got my attention. What do you want?”
“We need your help,” Jordan said. “That is to say, someone very dear to us…and you, needs your help.”
“This is about Alyx,” Israel guessed.
Balthazar pursed his lips. “How to explain…”
“We don’t have time to sit around being pleasant and recanting history like old school chums at a reunion,” Jordan cut in. “Alyx is running out of time.”
A realization broke through into his mind. Whatever they had done to him, they must have done to Alyx. That’s why she wasn’t waking up. Israel’s fingers dug into the arm of the couch. “You did something to her. You put her to sleep and now she’s not waking up.”
“Settle down,” Jordan said, lifting a finger in a warning. “We didn’t do anything to her. We’re trying to help her. Or at least, help you, help her.”
“You see,” Balthazar said, “Alyx is trapped in a kind of DreamScape and−”
“He doesn’t know what a DreamScape is,” said Jordan.
Balthazar crossed his arms, his dark features snapping to annoyance. “Let’s see you explain it.”
Jordan turned to Israel. “Alyx is trapped in a labyrinth inside her own mind. Only you can get through to her and help her get out before it’s too late…”
“Trapped in a labyrinth?” Israel repeated.
“In her own mind?”
Israel stared at Jordan. He hadn’t picked Jordan as a lunatic, but then again, these days, sometimes you couldn’t tell. “What the hell have you been smoking?”
Jordan threw his hands in the air. “Mortals,” he muttered.
“I knew we should have made Vix come here instead of trying to contact the Elder,” Balthazar said. “She’d know what to say to convince him.”
Who the hell was the Elder?
Jordan snorted. “We don’t have time to wait ’til he’s convinced. He’ll figure it all out soon enough.” Jordan palmed the air again. The wave that hit Israel was like the first, hot and heavy. He fought against it. But it was no use. This time an ocean crashed down over him and he felt himself getting sucked down.
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